U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

U of T linguist receives Molson Prize for helping preserve Canada's Aboriginal languages

University Professor Keren Rice has dedicated the past three decades to the study of Slavey or Dene (Photo by Henry Feather)

Professor Keren Rice - one of the world’s most distinguished linguists and an international leader in the empirical study of Aboriginal languages - has received the prestigious Molson Prize in the humanities and social sciences.

The $50,000 prize recognizes outstanding lifetime achievements and ongoing contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada. Rice received the award for her work to sustain, revitalize and document Canada’s Aboriginal languages. 

“I am deeply honoured that the importance of this work is being recognized,” said Rice, the Canada Research Chair in Linguistics and Aboriginal Studies. “As with so many things, it is a group of people that should be honoured, not just an individual.”

The selection committee noted that by working closely with Aboriginal Canadians to reclaim the power of their language, Rice is helping to build a legacy by working with others to establish research guidelines and training a new generation of researchers.

The committee also praised the “extraordinary insight with which she has broadened and transformed her discipline,” adding that “her pioneering work enables all Canadians to appreciate the depth and richness of our Aboriginal linguistic heritage.”

Rice has dedicated the past three decades to the study of Slavey (now usually called Dene), one of northern Canada’s official languages. She has brought her research directly into the community for the benefit of native teachers and students by developing training programs and language sustainability and research strategies for northern communities.

Her work, which includes a dictionary and a grammar, earned her a 2011 Killam Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts. One of her books, A Grammar of Slave, received the Bloomfield Book Award from the Linguistic Society of America and is still in use two decades after it was first published.

Rice is editor of the International Journal of American Linguistics and was the founding director of U of T’s Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives. In 2008 she was named University Professor, U of T’s highest distinction for a faculty member; in 2006 she received the university’s most prestigious teaching accolade: the President’s Teaching Award.

The Canada Council administers the Molson Prize in co-operation with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Laureates are selected by a joint peer assessment committee. Two prizes are awarded annually: one in the humanities and social sciences and one in the arts. Recent U of T recipients include literary theorist Linda Hutcheon (2010) and philosopher Wayne Sumner (2009).

“On behalf of the University of Toronto research community, congratulations to Professor Rice on this magnificent honour,” said Professor Peter Lewis, associate vice-president, research, at U of T. “The Molson Prize committee has rightly recognized Keren’s leadership in this vital area of our heritage. Canada is so fortunate to have Keren working with Aboriginal communities to keep their identity alive.”